Weekly Flash Fiction Practice

Do you write flash fiction? Either as your primary form or as a way to practice writing?

book-thumbnailI was reintroduced to the form last year by my friend and mentor, Rachel Crawford, co-editor of Her: Texas, an anthology of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, song, painting and photography by 60+ Texas women. As with anything suggested by successful people in my life, I immediately wanted to know more.

What is it? Back in the day, we just called it a “short short story,” but kids these days call it “flash.” In a nutshell (a very small nutshell – think pistachio, not walnut), flash fiction is a complete story in very few words. It has a protagonist, conflict and a resolution. How many words exactly? Some sources say less than 2K, some say less than 1K. Micro-fiction, a sub-classification of flash fiction, is usually 300 words or less.

Who to read? Chances are you have already read some flash fiction if you’ve read short short stories by Chekhov, O. Henry, or Hemingway. Google “flash fiction” and you will find a treasure trove. Do your own homework and dive in, but for starters, here are 12 Super Short Stories You Can Read in a Flash. Bon appetit.

But I don’t just read flash for fun. I read it to learn. I write it to learn as well. My personal goal is to write 1-2 flash pieces per week. Here’s why.

1. The economy required necessitates doing away with all of the things that bog down the writing. I can’t waste words on backstory, telling instead of showing, dialogue tags, long-winded descriptions, or even adverbs. As my eleventh grade English teacher would say, “Omit useless words!” Every word has to have a purpose – preferably more than one. (If you’re reading this, Mrs. Stanton, you were right!)

2. It’s a great exercise in starting with the action. No one wants to read a story that starts with a preamble. And when writing flash, you can’t use up your word count including it. Stace Budzko, writer and Instructor of “10 Weeks/10 Stories” at Grub Street says, “Think: the final gesture of a love affair, or the start of a good old-fashioned gang fight.” (Read more here.) Who doesn’t love a good gang fight, amiright?

3. I like the high demand on my creative stores. Telling a story, creating a character the reader is invested in, and giving markers as to time and space in less than 1000 words? Challenge accepted.

4. This is a great way to make sure I write every day. If I’m stuck on a larger project, or simply in research phase, I can still do some actual writing (or revising) every day. It fits well with the rhythms of family life. When I’ve thought through what I want to write (usually while folding laundry, washing dishes or scrubbing toilets), I can shoo the kids out the door to hunt worms and frogs and just about the time they start fighting hammer and tongs, I have pounded out a draft of my 800 words. When they nap, I can revise (or write a blog post, or do some research, or whatever I want to get done that day).

5. When I pass it off to my writer friends for their feedback, it doesn’t require them to block out a day or longer to give it their full attention. They can read it, think about it, and respond with helpful comments in a few hours or less. I appreciate my friends’ willingness to help, and I don’t want to monopolize their time.

How do I do it? I get my ideas from interesting people I see or from events from real life. Next, I think about the story arc, about the conflict and how to best show the reader who the characters are. The number of characters is usually fewer than three, but this week’s work-in-progress has seven. Is each one a major player? Of course not. But if a high school English teacher forced a student to dissect the piece and give details about each character with supporting evidence from the text? Doable. (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Stanton.) Omitting useless words goes for speakers, too. Dialogue is sparse and multi-purpose. Generally, a speaker gets one sentence or phrase in the entire piece. There may only be one or two spoken phrases in total. In those phrases, I give hints as to character’s motivation and personality as well as drive the plot forward and/or reveal conflict.

Flash is a great exercise in saying exactly what I mean, and for me, a good way to get better at something I enjoy. It’s a game, an assignment, and it usually ends up in a drawer. But it’s fun and really gets my brain buzzing. Since I’ve cut back on caffeine, I really need that. Try it and let me know what you think.

Updates! Lessons on Rejection I Learned as a Musician

As I await responses from editors and agents, I think a lot about two things. First, being an optimistic person with a wild imagination, I think about what it will be like to live next door to Charlaine Harris and attend parties with Jeff Abbott. I am always about thirty pounds skinnier in these fantasies and have a small dog in my purse. Which is ridiculous. (Why would being published make me skinnier? And I hate purses – especially purses large enough to carry even the smallest of dogs. I hate people who bring dogs to parties even more.)

Second, being a realistic person and one who realizes I have much room to grow, I think about what I will do when I get those thin rejection letters (or brief emails), or even more likely, hear nothing at all. Rejection is, sadly, part of life for all of us and especially for those of us who are creative types with delusions big dreams. I’ve learned a lot about rejection in my former life as a musician and here are my thoughts.

1. It is okay to cry. I cried when I didn’t do well at an important audition or when a performance didn’t get a great review. I cried and then I moved on. But getting the emotions out there is important. Otherwise, for me at least, it turns into something more than a good cry and I eat all my feelings. (Maybe that’s why I’m finally skinny in my fantasies of success?)

2. Acknowledge the good. No matter how horrible the feedback, no matter how disappointing the performance, there is always something good. Maybe the high notes could have been clearer, maybe the interpretation could have been stronger, but I could always congratulate myself on a performance with heart and a lyrical line. Not everyone in the audience is going to love you, but someone out there thinks you’re fantastic. (Hi, Mom!)

3. Evaluate the feedback. After the cry, after focusing on the positive, it’s time to take a deep breath and weigh any criticism. Is there substance to what the person has said? Is the person qualified to have said it? If the answers are “maybe” and “yes,” it must be considered and dealt with. If the person was just being mean and has no real credentials, you can probably just let it go. A fellow student once made fun of my eyebrows. I let that go. True story.

4. Change what you can. In the opera biz, we talk a lot about fach. In layman’s terms, fach is your “type” – it’s how you are cast. And it is not just your range, but the timbre of your voice, your “look,” your essence. You haven’t met me, haven’t heard me, but I’m small in stature and (when I’m not eating feelings), I’m slight. I have a light, lyrical voice and I’m a cheeky monkey. Mischief oozes from every pore. In terms of fach this means I will never sing the role of Carmen or Aida or anyone wearing a Viking helmet and brass brassiere. My light, lyrical voice and general demeanor is much better suited to a light, comic opera or concert career than to an opera career. And nothing I do will ever change that.

5. Work smarter, not harder. Nope, no matter how hard I worked, I would never be an opera star. So, I had to work on what I could do successfully – a concert career, perhaps specializing in something I do really well (20th Century music – I have nearly perfect pitch). That’s what I focused on in grad school and as soon as I made that shift, my time was not only better invested, it was more happily invested.

6. Get pro help. In my field, this meant a great voice teacher, a vocal coach, diction coaches, a kick-ass accompanist and help choosing the perfect literature for my goals. As an aspiring writer, I have several successful writer friends who advise me about my work and how to go about doing things as I dip my toes in the waters of the publishing world. I’m actively seeking an agent who can help me refine my work even further and hold my hand through the publishing process and I want an editor who will help me polish my work so it will sell. I have never been sorry to consult with an expert. Never. People are usually thrilled to be asked – including highly successful people – and they are even more thrilled when the person asking for help actually takes their advice.

7. Decide. Sometimes, even with working smarter and getting pro help, things are still not happening the way you’d hoped. Or, as you get deeper into the life you thought you wanted, you realize that’s not what you wanted at all. That is what happened to me. I didn’t want to travel all the time. I didn’t want to spend my life auditioning and auditioning and auditioning. I wanted a mostly boring life with kids and a house. Which is what I still want and can still have even if I get published (except for the occasional party with a dog in my giant purse). I have always wanted to write a book (or several), and I’m not going to give up on this one until I either accomplish that goal or I am dead. (I am hyperbole’s biggest fan.)

8. Remember: this is not The End. No matter what decision one reaches in the face of rejection, it has to include the caveat that the rejection is not the end. I decided not to pursue a performing career in music – but I did and do teach. (Cue the jokes. No, I did not “do” but I can teach someone else because I absolutely do know what it takes to start a young person in the right direction for a professional career.) Likewise, I will keep writing. Someone, somewhere will probably publish me. I may never live next door to Charlaine, but I can still write. (And if my dog would just hold still, I could shove him in a duffel bag and carry him around.)

What life lessons have you learned from rejection? Literary or otherwise? I’d love to hear from you!

Update! I just received a rejection from an excellent agent, and I am jubilant! Want to know why? Because she took the time to tell me why and to dialogue with me about a solution to what she perceived as a problem. On what is likely her lunch hour. That means that she actually thinks my work has promise and that I’m worth her time. She could have just ignored me or sent a boiler-plate response. So as much as it stung to read the rejection, I’m soaring knowing I made the “cut” list for people worth her time. Maybe another agent or editor will see things differently, but since I am going to take my own advice and listen to the pros, I’m going to work on fixing that issue she didn’t like. I’m working smarter, not harder. And who knows? Maybe she will reconsider if she knows I can handle criticism and I’m not a jerk (except for the part about fantasizing about taking a dog to a party in a giant purse).

Twitter Pitch Parties – Who Knew?

Recently, I participated in my first-ever Twitter pitch party. A pitch party is a writer’s opportunity to pitch their completed work in 140 characters or less using a hashtag watched by interested agents and editors for a window of time. If an editor/agent “favorites” your Tweet, it is an invitation to submit. No one else is supposed to “favorite,” since that would be a pretty dirty trick to get someone all excited that an agent/editor wants to see their manuscript just to discover you are also just a wannabe author living on diet soda and broken dreams.

My first hurdle: getting past my anxiety. By far the hardest thing about this getting published business is putting myself out there over and over again just to be ignored or rejected. It’s a little too much like junior high dances all over again. Gag me with a spoon. But, every rejection stings a little less and so I decided to take the plunge.

Next, you have to craft an enticing blurb about your book that is significantly less than 140 characters. I say “significantly less” because you have to leave room for hashtags as well: the event hashtag, your genre hashtag and your audience hashtag. That takes up a lot of Twitter real estate, so you have to be clever and concise. It is also recommended that you write several different blurbs to remain fresh and increase your chances of catching the eye of a variety of people.

Then, you have to make sure you follow the rules. Agents, editors and event hosts are watching and it wouldn’t make sense to annoy them all by committing Twitter pitch party faux pas. I’m not talking about wearing the same dress as another guest or double dipping a taco chip – I’m talking about tweet frequency. It is very bad manners to clog the feed by over-pitching your pitch. This particular event had a rule of no more than two tweets per hour. I set a timer. Yes, I’m a nerd like that.

So, armed with courage, blurbs and a timer, I invited myself to the party. (Please note: I did not wear an actual dress, but taco chips may have been consumed.)

What was it like? Really, it was a lot like a junior high dance. I followed the feed obsessively frequently throughout the day and saw some pitches I was like, “OMG. She’s, like, totally awesome! I want to be just like her!” and some that I secretly thought,, “Grody to the max!” I retweeted pitches I really liked to show solidarity, and some people retweeted mine. I followed new folks and they followed me. I mingled. I schmoozed. I tried to look totally rad.

But, the big question, as it is at all junior high dances, is, “Did anyone ask you to dance?”

And the answer is…yes! I got two invitations to submit. I checked their submission requirements, formatted my materials as requested, tailored my pitch and now…we just wait to see if we’ll go all the way. (Ew…did I take the metaphor too far? Too far. Sorry.)

I also got some new followers and made some new pals who are also writers which is very exciting as well.

Does a Twitter pitch party sound like fun to you?

Update: This is the party that never ends, folks! I checked my social media this morning and found another “favorite” from a literary agent. Woohoo! Do I feel like the belle of the ball, or what?!? (I feel like the belle. Definitely the belle.)

Answering Agents’ Questions: Favorite Authors

It’s been quiet on the blog lately, but I have not been idle! I’ve just finished a rewrite of one of my full-length books in preparation for submission. Without giving too much away (since I want you to buy it when it is eventually published…if it’s ever published…oh, please, ye gods, let it be published…), it is a cozy mystery linking old mysteries with new ones.

A cozy mystery is one that typically features an amateur sleuth (usually female), whose profession or connections allow her to gather information and discover criminals without the help of professionals. Sometimes, she does happen to have a convenient friend – the chief of police, for example – or the coroner or a computer hacker. There is very little violence (except for a very sanitized murder), very little sex (although almost certainly some sexual tension) and no naughty words. It often has a hook like treasure hunting, scrapbooking, knitting, herb gardening or baking.

My protagonist is female and amateur but has no convenient friends except for a grouchy, acid-tongued antiques dealer who has a  penchant for gossip and a long memory. She has recently moved to her husband’s hometown and finds the change…challenging. (Art imitating life much?) The murder is highly sanitized and there are no explicit sex scenes or even bad words. This was a challenge because the antiques dealer definitely has a potty mouth. He had to tone it down for the book. My hook is that all of the old mysteries are actually REAL. I didn’t make them up. Our new town may not have a Target, but it has a lot of old mysteries. (Some days, I’d rather have Target, but I digress.)

I’ve been working on this book for four years and developing the idea and researching it for a year before that. I would have finished sooner except I got busy having a second baby, leaving my career, moving and deciding to homeschool. The book was my entertainment, my “me” time, and I’m excited to have it finished. (I must admit, however, that after working on it off and on for so long, I thought about killing off all the characters more than once.)

Now comes the hardest part–waiting! But as I send out more things, that gets easier. I try to use the time to do something constructive, whether that’s more writing or cleaning the bathrooms.

This time around, I’ve been exploring how to talk to agents and publishers and I found this great article, “4 Questions Agents Ask Writers at Pitch Sessions.” Today, I’m answering the first two questions here.

As for question one, I always have two or three projects going at a time. If I get stuck on one, I work on another. Right now, I am getting ready to resubmit a middle-grade nonfiction proposal, developing a middle-grade fiction idea, rewriting a picture book and working on books two and three in my mystery series. I’ve sketched out the primary plot and subplots, the settings, the calendar, the new characters and planned scenes for book two.

As for question two, I love this question! You can tell a lot about a person by the books they love most. I can imagine an agent or publisher would want to know if the person they are considering has actually read in the genre they are trying to write and if so, which authors have influenced their style. And I can imagine they want to know quickly – without necessarily having to read all 130,000 words of a prospective manuscript.

Now, to be fair, I read just about anything and everything. Really. But in mysteries here are my favorite authors and protagonists (in no particular order). Not all of them are cozies, but all of them are wonderful.

1. Ellis Peters – Brother Cadfael.

2. Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. (Well, duh.) If you want to write mysteries and you haven’t read Dame Agatha, please, don’t write mysteries. Please.

3. Elizabeth Peters – Amelia Peabody.

4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes.

5. Anne Perry – Charlotte and Thomas Pitt.

6. Ruth Rendell – Inspector Wexford.

7. Lilian Jackson Braun – The Cat Who…series featuring James Qwilleran

8. Robin Paige (Bill and Susan Albert) – Kate and Charles Sheridan

9. Susan Wittig Albert – China Bayles

10. M.C. Beaton – Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin

11. Jeff Abbott – Jordan Poteet

12. Charlaine Harris – Aurora Teagarden

13. Dorothy Sayers – Lord Peter Wimsey

14. Sue Grafton – Kinsey Millhone

You’ll notice that many of these are British though there are many Americans in the mix, too. Some of them feature amateur sleuths, some professional. Some are historical fiction and some are contemporary. And there is a wide variety of tone. Cadfael and Inspector Wexford are quite different reads from Agatha Raisin and James Qwilleran! I have never felt haunted by an Agatha Raisin story though Inspector Wexford has certainly had that effect.

But what all of these have in common are that these authors write about more than just the mystery. The books aren’t just cute little whodunnits – they often touch on deeper themes and the human condition. No, they aren’t “Crime and Punishment.” But, they are beautifully (and subtly) crafted explorations of the inner workings of the human heart. I like that. I read mysteries primarily for their entertainment value, but for the story to resonate with me, the author needs to be pointing to a deeper truth. Even if the deeper truth is simply, “Don’t be a jerk or twelve people will stab you to death on a train.”

So, I wait and I read and I write. I know isn’t easy to find a publisher – you have to fit their list and be someone they think can sell enough books to make their investment worthwhile. They may like your concept, but not your style. Or like your style, but not your plot. Or they may not like your title and never even actually read your submission. That’s okay. Louisa May Alcott was told, “Stick to teaching,” and look how that turned out.

I’ll keep trying.

Lena Dunham v. Josh Duggar

Warning. This is a snit. This isn’t a nice little post about homeschooling or a funny parody of a kids’ movie song. I’m going to use awful, unpleasant words that no one likes. Not swears, but truly awful, squirm-worthy words. In the words of the Lorax, “You have been warned!”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard about Josh Duggar and the Duggar family’s fall from grace. If you haven’t, go look at the Interwebz. I’ll wait. And if you’ve been following the news and social media , you’ve probably also heard the Right railing against “the media” and “liberals” and “progressives” for the backlash against all things Duggar. Many of these hand-wringing justifications include mention of Lena Dunham, billed as a “liberal darling” who also molested her sister, Grace. Again, if you haven’t seen these articles, go look at the Interwebz. I have all day.

Have you gotten your facts? I hope you read a few articles – not just from your favorite and preferred news sources, but some from the “other side” as well. I hope you looked at the 33-page police report filed in 2006. (And thank goodness there are so many screen shots of that circulating since the judge in Arkansas ordered it expunged and it no longer, technically anyway, exists. Funny that…) Go read the excerpt from Lena Dunham’s book and her sister’s response as well. Go find and read all of these for yourself. Extra credit for reading the ATI/Bill Gothard counseling flow chart for victims of sexual abuse most probably used by Jim Bob, Michelle and others in the Duggar sphere to counsel Josh’s victims.

I’m intentionally not linking them here. Go find them. Read them. For yourself. There needs to be more doing our own research using primary sources in the world. REALLY.

Good for you. Now you have your facts. You can quit reading now since I am sure you can form an educated and supportable opinion without my intervention.

But just in case you haven’t actually gone to the Interwebz and haven’t checked the facts for yourself and/or just in case you care about my opinion on the matter, I present this comparison of Lena Dunham and Josh Duggar.

1. Age of Perpetrator: Josh Duggar was 14-15 years old. Lena Dunham was 7. Edit: A reader mentioned that Lena Dunham had continued to abuse her sister to the age of 17. I did some digging and found reports that she did continue engaging in the weird and inappropriate until she was in her teen years. More below.

2. Age of Victims: Josh Duggar’s victims’ ages have been redacted from the police report, but if you read the report, it is obvious some of them were very young when he incestuously molested them. I have read articles by people who have done the math (and who can actually remember all of those “J” names), and his youngest victim (a sister) would have been around age 5 when she was violated. Grace Dunham was 4. Edit: She was 4 at the time of the most alarming incident where Lena explored her vagina. Others occurred later.

3. Difference in Age between Perpetrator and Victims: Josh Duggar was 9-10 years older than his youngest victim. Lena Dunham was 3 years older than Grace.

4. Relationship to Victim(s): Four of Josh Duggar’s victims were his sisters and one was a family friend. Lena Dunham touched her sister, Grace.

5. Number of Incidents: Josh Duggar – unknown, but at least five separate occasions. Lena Dunham – one. Edit: Lena also admitted to and described other incidents in detail in her memoir.

6. Circumstances surrounding Incidents: Josh Duggar usually snuck into his sisters’ rooms while they were sleeping (or in one case, snuck up on a sister sleeping on the couch). In at least one case, Josh Duggar forced inappropriate touch on one of his victims while she was fully awake. Lena Dunham and her sister were playing in the family driveway and her sister was fully awake. Edit: that was the first incident. At other times, Lena admits to bribing her younger sister for 5-second kisses on the lips, trying to get Grace to “relax” on her and she also admits to touching herself (not stimulating, but exploring herself) while her sister was asleep beside her in their shared bed.

7. Time Frame: Josh Duggar incestuously molested his sisters over a period of 9 months-1 year. Lena Dunham touched her sister once while playing in the family driveway. Edit: She also instigated other activities between them through her teen years.

8. Self-Reporting: Josh Duggar told his parents after several months of incestuously molesting his sisters because he felt guilt and shame. Lena Dunham told her mother immediately when she discovered that her sister had put a bunch of pebbles in her vagina. Edit: She wrote about the other things in her memoir – in detail. In fact, she landed in hot water because she wrote about them so candidly (some called it flippantly). But however one chooses to judge her self-reporting, she certainly left nothing to the imagination.

Summary: Josh Duggar was much older than his victims, abused them multiple times, took efforts to avoid being discovered and later (much later) confessed because he knew what he had done was wrong. Lena Dunham was also older than her victim, but offended once, and immediately told on herself because she was alarmed by the pebbles she saw. This last part speaks to Lena Dunham’s intent – curiosity. Curiosity inappropriately satisfied, certainly. Josh Duggar preyed on his victims for sexual gratification. And that is a crucial distinction. Edit: Lena Dunham also engaged in inappropriate activities more than once. The bribed kisses, the relaxing on, the touching herself while her sister slept – and the vagina incident. Still a the major difference remains: many reputable therapists do not consider Lena’s behavior abuse. Inappropriate, yes. Evidence that some discussion of boundaries was sorely needed, yes. But not abusive. So far, as of this edit, I have yet to read any credible therapist who says what Josh Duggar did was anything other than abusive. There is no “grey area” where a reasonably, trained person familiar with children, their development and sexual abuse has gone out on a limb to say that what he did was just youthful exploration and curiosity. Each and every time Josh Duggar acted, he fondled his victim’s genitals and often, their breasts as well.

I’m not going to rehash how the Duggar family handled (or rather, did not handle) the issue because I can’t say how Lena Dunham’s mother handled it other than removing the rocks and this is a comparison piece. I can’t compare information I don’t have. There isn’t any mention of sending Lena to help a family friend remodel a building owned by an associated religious organization as therapy. There is no mention that Lena received a talking to by another family friend in law enforcement (who would later be sentenced to 56 years in jail for child pornography crimes). We don’t know if Grace was told to sleep in her clothes or moved into a room with others in their family to keep it from happening again. (Perhaps she was banned from playing in the family driveway?) We don’t know if Lena’s family used Bill Gothard’s ATI flow-chart to counsel Grace. (Did they ask how Grace had “defrauded” Lena in some way, resulting in God allowing it to happen? Was her four-year-old’s dress too provocative, her panties too enticing, or was she sitting indecently in that driveway playing with blocks? Did they interview Grace to find out which family rule she had broken, thereby causing God to allow it to happen?) We will never know.

But one thing I do know, Lena Dunham and Josh Duggar are not the same. Comparing the two is comparing apples to orangutans. Comparing the two is a feeble attempt to make the Duggar family scandal about something other than incestuous molestation that was not dealt with appropriately, but shoved under the rug – a rug then covered with a shiny, “Family Values” empire. An empire used to accuse and malign and discriminate against entire groups of people based on the Duggar’s evaluation of their sexual purity.

And another thing I know – I’d let Lena Dunham babysit long before I’d let Josh Duggar. Edit: Long before…but how long before is exactly never? If I had to choose between the two, I’d pick Lena, but thankfully….I don’t have to make that choice.